A desert affair

A solitary night in the Sinai turns into an eerie and magical encounter. By Tehila Lieberman. Excerpted from 'Travelers Tales: Women in the Wild.'

By Tehila Lieberman
October 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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There is an hour in Jerusalem when one can almost smell the burnt offerings. When the sky, purple, orange, sage, cracks open for a moment to allow in the day's load of prayers and curses, then closes up again, majestic and mysterious as the lights come on below the ancient walls, and cars weave down the thin roads that lead out of the city, and silence blows in from the east.

At this hour, I would usually pull a chair outside the small cottage I had rented and watch evening approach, or take a walk down to Mishkenot Shaananim to watch dusk soften the just-lit walls, to hear the bells of mules in a nearby village mingle with the unintentional medley of opposing prayers.


It was 1976 and I was 21 and living in Jerusalem with the conviction (that one can only have at that age) that I had found my place in the world, had stumbled upon where I was supposed to be.

I had fallen completely and passionately in love with Jerusalem with its strange golden light, its babel of languages, its bougainvillea and almond blossom, its disputed and thrice-claimed god. I had fallen in love, too, with the country around it. Had I been asked to explain it, I would have said that it was as if I had stumbled upon in those teeming streets, by the turquoise sea and in that shimmering heat, the maelstrom of some recurrent dream.


Whether it was the East with its sultry ways, its lid full of half-turned instinct and mystery, or whether it was the thrill of having left behind the life that had been prescribed for me, all I knew was I wanted to be a part of this beautiful and complicated place, to move in its sultry rhythm, to learn its veiled Levantine ways.

So that when I heard everyone talking about the Sinai desert that lay hours south, I knew that I needed to go. Travelers described dunes alongside a brilliant blue sea, Bedouin on camels, beautiful reefs. In the few weeks that remained before classes began, I gathered together a few new friends and headed for the great hills of sand, for the ancient tongue of sea said to lick like a memory at the banks of two lands.

We left Jerusalem at midnight to avoid the heat, five of us piled into an old green Renault. The sleeping countryside sped by us; Arab villages, some small Israeli towns, a few kibbutzim, then the dusty welcome of Beersheba, after which there were only a few scattered lights dotting the large, dark stretches of the Negev. About an hour out of Beersheba, we pulled over to the side of the road so that our only licensed driver could have a short sleep. I walked down the road for a little while, breathing in the night air of the Negev. The darkness was thick and silent but I could smell the desert, knew that around us were the pink sculpted hills of the Arava.


As dawn broke, we continued on, stopping as briefly as we could to grab breakfast in Eilat, eager to leave its "skyline" of five star hotels, its tourist boats and shops. Then we continued south; to our right, the dry red mountains of the desert, to our left, the glittering sea.

What we finally arrived at was this: Nothing but dunes, shifting seething dunes, rolling softly to the sea, crashing up against great palms that hung with drunken fruit and shade. The water was stretched as far as one could see, clear and sparkling with its coral reefs, its brilliantly colored fish. The sea was bordered by soft burning sand that would scorch the soles of your feet if you dared to venture out during the day from your homemade tent, or your small circumference of palm tree shade. Across the water, like a picture out of focus, the light pink haze of mountains that lined the coast of Saudi Arabia.


This was Nueiba. It housed -- at that time (it is now, once again, part of Egypt) -- an Israeli moshav that grew watermelons, the probability of a hidden army encampment, and then between the sea and the ochre colored range of desert mountains, a long stretch of sand that rose into soft sculpted dunes, dotted here and there with tall palm trees. We decided to stop here. Others traveling down to the Sinai went on, on buses, motorcycles or hitchhiking, to the Bedouin fishing village of Dahab, to the hallucinatory reefs of Ras Mohammed, or inward, to the monastery at Santa Katarina. But Nueiba was where we wanted to be.

It was the mid-seventies and the sixties were just arriving here. And with its voluptuous sands, its seemingly hash-induced mirages of Bedouin women in long colorful trails by the water's edge (no mirage; they appeared and disappeared at various times of day, emerging in groups from their hidden tents to cool the soles of their feet at the edge of the Red Sea), this desert was luring us, along with scores of Scandinavians and Europeans, to leave our lives behind and learn its ways. To learn the soft, almost imperceptible way the dunes reshaped themselves in the late afternoon, the way the pink light lifted in a haze off the mountains, the way dates, hanging like desert gold, would fatten and wrinkle, then fall from the tall palms from which they hung. The taste of coffee at the end of the day, cooked in a blackened Turkish coffee pot, desert bread, as biblical and full of sand as thousands of years ago. The terrain of prophets and outcasts and lovers who wanted, however briefly, to leave their bodies.

We left our car at the parking lot that adjoined the gas station and small cafe run by the moshav and walked for an hour and a half into the dunes, following the sultry curve of the water. At first we passed large tents with every convenience, gas stoves, even televisions. Then clusters of young people speaking German, then French, then the soft sparsely inhabited "hill country" of the dunes. This was where the serious desert travelers came, many of whom had come here for a few days or a few weeks and gotten hypnotized; ended up living in tents made of anything they could find, or settled for a year or more between the branches of some huge and sprawling palm.


We found a palm tree among the dunes that was so large and strangely shaped from years of desert winds, that it almost seemed like two palms growing from the same cluster of roots. We unpacked the various colorful sheets we'd brought and constructed a "house" a few feet from the tree to protect us, where the tree wouldn't, from the seething sun, the night winds, the late afternoon's mist of sand. And then we settled each into his or her own silence. With every day, we spoke less and less. This was not a decision but a response to the extraordinary silence around us.

Every day I stretched out on a thin colorful cloth on the sand, first in the early morning's still gentle sun, then for hours, under the large leaves of the palm, clinging to every last inch of shade.

For days I just lay in the lap of the desert's strange and rustling silence, listening for the nomad's secret footfall, the shift of dunes, the play of waves. Until I knew, as the motionless Bedouin knew, as those before me who had in that starkest wedding, met the most ancient sparks of their souls, that if one chose, one could sleep here the sleep of centuries. That the sun rose and the sun shone and the sun remained for most of one's life baking its great lengths of sand and that one lay in it, not chosen, not spared, but without a will -- half-cactus, half-rock, all thought falling away like wizened fruit, all abstractions and all previous truths dissolving in a world grown thick and real. That one grew slowly dull and parched and that still the sun shone and shone. That one hid in the thin shade of the trees, pressed one's face against the darkening bark and that still the sun mercilessly shone. That water grew precious and language scarce. That now and then a specter of breeze lifted mirage-like from a distant dune and one turned one's face slowly right into it, lifted one's face gently right into it.


That each day it would come to this. The morning with its rustling sea, its shifting sands, its quickened breeze would slow daily into this gaping and chimerical stillness. The Bedouin children would dissolve from view, the flapping tents stand still and full, the dunes which only hours before had not been able to keep their form would stiffen like sphinxes by a plate-like sea, not a grain evolving, not a scorpion's slide breaking across the trailless sand.

And then the day would draw to a close. We would wake up from a heat-drugged sleep, feel a breeze lifting, see the palm leaves above us begin their delicate dance. We would pass around the precious jug of water, then start a fire for the afternoon tea, as the huge and biblical sun fell lower in the sky, then plunged angrily into the water. The colors of the sky would deepen, a fiery orange, then pink, then only a golden veil rippling over the face of the water.

Then night would arrive with its great web of stars which loomed so close, so large, you felt you had only to reach up and catch some in your palm. We would wander around the surrounding dunes collecting branches, bits of desert brush, then we'd light our night fire, sit quietly around it, or drift off on solitary walks across the dunes or down to the rustling water.

I would usually wander down to the water. Leave my jalabieh on some rocks and swim beneath the thick net of stars, beneath the strong beam of moonlight lighting the dark pools round my arms, then the parched hills of Saudi Arabia. And what I remember thinking one night, if, in fact, it could be called thinking, that merging of thought and sensation as the moonlight danced around me, illuminating the gills of the water, the mountain crags, the still space, was that I had arrived surely to the edge of my senses, was reeling at the very edge of my senses; that I was floating suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.


It was a week and a half into our stay when we experienced that strange and moonless night. We were beginning to grow aware that soon we would need to go back to Jerusalem. That we would need to reenter our city selves so as to be able to return to what awaited us: schedules, classes, university.

As if in preparation, the friends with whom I was traveling began to grow restless, to take long walks back to the small cafi at the entry point, to return with tales of other travelers, with food and small treats they had bought. Only I had no desire to do so. I was unwilling to move away from this wonderful silence, this rhythm of the desert that we had entered, that followed unquestioningly the imperatives of survival, the position of the sun in the sky.

The day that ushered in that particularly dark and eerie night had passed like many others. We had swum for hours in the cool waters, hidden from the looming midday sun, gathered branches for the evening fire. The few who had hiked back to the cafe had returned with fresh water and supplies.

We had spoken briefly about the peculiar lift of the wind, about the wear our "house" had suffered, about how our bright cloths had softened, succumbed slowly to the color of sand.


And then the strange arrival of night. It had approached from the peaks of Saudi Arabia, rumbling with the coming wrath of its god. An odd and ominous night in the way that it had crawled towards us -- moved with still purpose towards us, hung there like the pillar of fire that it had once been. Then devoured our arms, our legs, our things; devoured the sand, the waves, the trees.

The friends with whom I was traveling decided suddenly to head back up the coast for the night, in search of food and light, some reminders of "civilization." I offered to stay behind to guard our meager belongings, our little house, our precious tree.

Before they left, they asked me again if I was sure that I didn't want to join them. I was sure. Although it was a little unnerving to see them about to go, I knew that it would be as good as leaving the desert if I went with them, that when we returned it would not be the same.

They gathered themselves up and left. As soon as they had taken a few steps, the night swallowed them, erased them immediately. I could neither hear nor see them. I looked around, but could see nothing. All I could hear was the sound of the sea some distance ahead, its primordial waves rushing and retreating in an invisible line of sound up ahead. I got up and took a few steps. I couldn't see the dunes that I knew were there. I knew their contours only by the way they forced my feet up or down as I crossed their surface. I retraced my steps to our tree and then lay down on the sand, sinking softly and blindly into it. As if to reassure myself of what was still present, I reached for the lines of my body, then ran my hands through the cool night sand and felt a strange exultation as I realized that I was truly alone in the desert -- in this vast invisible night desert and it was a black dance, a cauldron of souls.


I remained there for a long while in the most complete darkness I had ever known, my body sculpted into the sand, a night wind dancing across my face. And I knew then that this was the way I wanted to live -- that I wanted the courage to live like this. That I wanted to explore all the unknown worlds that lay yet buried at my feet, to unearth their wisdom, to devour their wisdom, until it entered my soul, until it was lodged in my armor, jeweled and light.

This is what I remember thinking when suddenly a fire sprang up -- several dunes from where I was lying. A defiant rite, a primordial laugh, it burst suddenly into the impenetrable darkness. What I could see was a cluster of bushes, a house made of wood and brilliantly colored cloths and three men of indeterminate age who had noticed me and were looking in my direction, and who began beckoning me to join them, to come.

It was a strange intimacy that held us for a moment staring at one another across the patch of light that unfurled like a path between us. A strange and unsurpassed intimacy. I took in their long blond hair, their desert robes, their house made of cloth and wood. Then I rose and began walking slowly towards them. The dunes were soft beneath my feet. With every step, I felt the sand recording then erasing my footprints. But as I began to draw closer to them, to approach them where they waited like a crevice, like a footpath, like a wild unknown, when I saw the flames licking at them, illuminating them like ancient shadows, like prophets, like survivors of god, I felt a bit afraid despite myself. They were, I could see now, dark, unfamiliar creatures of the desert to whom language had been lost for years. Who had renounced the world as I had known it but had woken every day for years to the sound of the rushing sea outside the makeshift walls of their house that hung of canvas, that rattled in wood, that held on its skeletal walls a button found, a piece of glass. Language had seeped out of them for years and it had left them muscled, elemental, sparse. Approaching their silent faces that night, I knew that they had lived far too long, seen far too much in this primitive place.

But still I came up to them, to their trailing beards, their sexless skin, their silence and their Bedouin understanding of a world, that once like I, they hadn't known. They were sitting by their fire, cooking tea in a pot black with years of black. Three men with dark skin and distant eyes. German once, Scandinavian perhaps, now citizens of silence, of sand, disciples of a desert god who still visited this land with historic wrath and from whom they hid between great dunes, in makeshift houses, in silent tents.

They received me like the Bedouin would receive a night traveler, with a cushion and a pot of tea rattling on its bed of sticks. They seemed to have no need to find out who I was; it was as a weary traveler that they received me though they'd seen my nearby bed of sand. They patted some bright cushions around me, they threw more sugar into the tea. They brewed it dark, it smelled strangely sweet and unfamiliar, and then there was a rustling just behind me, and turning -- a woman such as I'd never seen -- whose body hung with the remnants of centuries, of Arabian trade routes, of harems, of kings. A woman whose eyes were glowing as if in league with the larger usurpation, she had sucked all the light from the universe, hung it about herself like a jewel, then ignited the fire that had swept the dunes, that had fallen about me like the net of a princess wanting play.

She was standing in the doorway of their house that hung of canvas, that rattled in wood, with her eyes commanding a space and the men gently slid over and created a space for her next to me. I was filled with wonder at this strange and beautiful woman, whose wrists and ankles dangled with tiny hammered bells, who was swooping down like a bird next to me, pouring me some thick sweet tea. I could smell fjords left behind, long winters, cold streets and desert all mixed together. We sat drinking the dark sweet tea from tiny chipped porcelain cups, watching the dancing flames of their fire as it consumed the dry desert brush they were burning, that was crackling and sending sparks over the sand. No one spoke. I remember wondering how long they'd been living like this, who they once had been, what lives they would return to if they ever left this nomadic existence. But pretty soon my head began to grow heavy, to grow sweetly tired and heavy, and I closed my eyes on a world that seemed to have stopped and lay my head on someone's lap, I wasn't sure whose lap. Someone's hands came to stroke me gently, as one would putting a child to sleep. They smelled of Vikings, they sounded like the sea, they had a rhythm that was the rhythm of wind. They spoke of nothing. They wanted nothing. Their rhythm felt like the cyclical dreams of the sea.

When I woke, the night's thick blackness was lifting like a substance, growing like a painting out of the sea. I was lying by the last embers of a fire, a cloth thrown over me, a Bedouin cloth with brilliant flowers and withered seams. In the doorway of that sand-swept house that hung in canvas, that rattled in wood, that looked again like it held no one, knew nothing but the wind shaking it at its foundations, sat a small Bedouin boy with a beautifully carved stick in his hand. He was watching me as if he'd been waiting. He pointed to the weather-beaten shack, now stripped of its bright cloths, its adornments of trinkets and shells.

"Mine," he said as he continued pointing to the house.

I peered at the house. There was no sign of them. I felt a sudden and inexplicable sadness, as if I might have joined them. As if I might have had the courage to renounce the life I was supposed to have and join their wandering from place to place, drape around me the riches and silence of the desert, live for a while in a soft valley of dunes, then move on like the Bedouin.

"They go," he said in his rudimentary English. "Mine," he repeated, pointing again at the house.

"Do you know where they went?" I asked him in English, then in Hebrew.

No, he shook his head.

"Are they coming back? Might they come back?" I asked, realizing the silliness of my question even as it was escaping my lips.

He smiled and raised his gaze to the sky. "Inshallah," If it is God's desire, he said.

I smiled at him and began to head back to where our things were piled, dusty and colorful a few dunes away. When I turned around for one last look, he was standing in the doorway of the house, twirling his beautiful stick like an angel at the mysterious and now empty gate of Eden.

Tehila Lieberman

Tehila Lieberman lives in Cambridge, Mass., and is working on a collection of short stories and a novella. She has won he Colorado Review's Stanley Elkin Memorial Prize for fiction. This story is excerpted with permission from "Travelers' Tales Guides: Women in the Wild." ) copyright 1998 by Travelers' Tales, Inc.

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